Background on ship modeling

Following is s history of how I got involved in ship model building. It includes mention of the various ship model associations I have been involved with through the years. Some of them still exist and have web presence worth visiting. Others are gone or have been supplanted by newer groups.

After this history, I have included some modeling tips and information I gathered through the years, which may be of use to a model builder.

Bibliography and sources of information are listed here.

Information on reading and modeling from hull plans here.

Information on rope-making is in two parts. The first part is a discussion of the cordage itself, incuding definition of terms and techniques I use and details on the particular materials used to make the cordage for models. The second part describes the rope machine I use and how I made it and how it is used to make various ropes and cables

Notes on pulley "blocks" and how to make them here.


In the early to late 1950s, I lived in Gardner, Massachusetts. Actually, we lived in what was called "East Gardner", on the grounds of the Massachusetts State mental hospital located there. My dad was a psychiatrist and worked as the Assistant Superintendant at the hospital. The doctor in charge, the Superintendant, was Dr. Warren Cordes, who lived across the street from us, in Catalpa Cottage. (We lived in Cedar Cottage). Dr. Cordes was an avid ship model builder and always had a project underway. He and his wife also had a home on the Cape in Chatham and I was told it was full of his models. I loved his models and got interested in sailing ship models as a result. Dr. Cordes built from kits, as far as I know, although one of his sons, Bill, did build a few small hulls from scratch that we used for pond sailing in the former "ice pond" on the grounds. The hospital had originally been a "State Colony" for the mentally ill, and was designed as a self-sufficient entity, with patients used as labor on the multiple farms and dairy on the property, a pond where they cut ice in the winter and stored it in sawdust in the "ice house" adjacent to the pond, as well as carpenter shop, power plant, maintenence and repair shops, and extensive capacity for storing food grown there. It even had its own (small) rail road station, and a wide promenade like walkway leading from the train station to the center of the main cluster of buildings located nearby. Most all of the self-sufficiency was gone by the time we lived there, as the treatment of mental illness had evolved from simple custodial care to active treatment, with a goal to returning patients to normal life, if possible. It was however, a great place to grow up with hundreds of acres to explore. And a pond to fish in, as well as sail our models.

My first serious attempt at a sailing ship scale model, when I was about 15 years old, was a kit of the American revolutionaly war brig "Cabot", a solid hulled model from Marine Models Company, I believe. Later I built the "Gertrude Thebaud" from Model Shipways, but modeled only occasionally through the years until in medical school I made the "Rattlesnake", a solid hull model of an early American privateer, again from Model Shipways. While working on that model, living in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, I found the Philadelphia Ship Model Society and discovered a new world of model building. At that time, both Bill Crothers and Tom Hornsby were still active in the group. If you don't know those names, you should find out about them - they are the men who gave us "Seagull Plans", and worked to the finest standards of historical research and accuracy and meticulous model building technique. If you ever find a Seagull Plan, buy it; each one is as valuable as a textbook. Through Bill and Tom and others in the club, I learned how to research a ship, the importance of accuracy and of documenting your work, and the sheer fun that modeling can be.

The Rattlesnake traveled with us through our various moves until she was destroyed when our home was hit by a tornado in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in 1995.

After completing the Rattlesnake, life got in the way of further serious model building. We were living the farming life in New Hampshire when we got the opportunity to work in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years, in 1986-87. As we prepared to relocate to Saudi Arabia, I had the chance to think about what I would like to do in my spare time, and decided to return to ship model building. I took over several kits, and built one, the "Albatross" as I recall, from a European kit, and another small model of a whale boat, also from a kit. Then, a friend, Howard Hupe, another model airplane builder, challenged me to a "build off". We would each buy the Dumas kit model of the PT-109 as radio-controlled boats and then see which one performed better and looked better. I did some research and found "Coastal Forces", from whom I bought detailed plans of the 109 and used those plans to improve the Dumas model. I also powered the model with a high performance electric motor and an oversized prop, so my version of the kit looked better and performed better. But I spent so much time kit-bashing the models that I had built to that point, I decided that I would move on to scratch building in the future. The first scratch built model was of the PT 34, again using Coastal Forces plans, and built in 1:32 scale. When I first returned to the states, I build another PT boat model, this time of the PT 59, in 1:12 scale. All these models are pictured on the PT boats page of this site, here

Here's a picture of my workshop in New Hampshire, set up in one of the rooms in the barn we had coverted to space for Ellen's busy yarn shop and weaving supply business. The large model of the PT 59 is on the bench, and in the background you can see the PT 109 model and the PT 34 model made in Riyadh in cases on shelves on the wall. All ended up at the PT boat museum in Fall River, Massachusetts when we moved from New Hampshire. In the foreground on the right is the top of the huge Jotul stove which was the heat for the shop.

model workshop at the farm

Life got in the way again and it was another seven years before I began seriously modeling again, when we left the farm in 1994 and started a new way of life in Oklahoma. I started with a kit-bashed "Fair American", the old solid hulled version from Model Shipways. Again, I was most fortunate to find the Oklahoma City Ship Modelers, led by Don Cook, and hosted by Tom Woodward at his hobby shop. The group was welcoming and met every Saturday for a group work day. Members brought in work-in-progress, kits, and finished models. The only rule was that no comments could be negative; the group thrived and produced some remarkable models. It was there that I finally got serious about modeling again, and built my first plank on frame model, an anchor hoy, based on plans in Grimwood's book. I drew up the plans and made the model. My planking was hardly accurate, but I had taken the plunge.

The next model was the "Essex" from plans by Portia Tatakjian in 1:64 scale. Her accompanying book from the "Anatomy of the Ship" series was the source for detailing the hull and for the masting and rigging. The model had the holds finished off with barrels and cordage and spare anchor, and the captain's sleeping cabin was fully furnished with bed and dresser. The cordage was made up of linen with my rope machine, based on the one used at the Naval Academy Museum model shop designed by Bob Sumrall, after he saw how some Amish farmers were making rope at a county fair. I spent a day at the Academy Museum Rogers Collection during a trip to Washington, DC to visit the National Archives. I am still processing all the information I gained on that trip!

The next project was actually two ships. I started the "Raleigh" from Harold Hahn's plans, using his method of construction, but changing the plans to 1:64 scale. At around the same time, I began the "Vandalia" from hull plans in the National Archives, again changing the scale of the plans from 1:48 to 1:64. Both were at about the same stage, with hull planking partially complete, when we moved to Virginia, where I finished the "Vandalia" hull. While living there, I had the benefit of wisdom and encouragement from the members of the Hampton Roads Ship Model Society. That group is closely allied with the Mariner's Museum and is a great source of information. I am still a long-distance member of that group. Take a look at their web site if you get a chance.

Here are a couple of picture of my workbench in Petersburg with the Vandalia in process.

Petersburg workbench

vandalia on the bench

In 2003, we moved, briefly, to southern California, where I again benefitted from model building colleagues at the Ventura County Maritime Museum Ship Model Guild, and at the Ship Modelers Association. See the Ship Modelers Association web site for more information on the SMA and some great photos of models. The Ventura County museum, by the way, is now called the "Channel Islands Maritime Museum" and is in a new home and still has has a most excellent collection of ship models and maritime art. It is well worth a visit when in the L.A. area.

The house we bought in Ventu Park had a small "casita" or "mother-in-law" house in the back yard. It made a great guest cottage and an even better ship model work shop. I set my wood shop machines up in the garage and my ship modeling in the casita.

While in California, I finished rigging the "Vandalia" in time for the SMA's 2004 Western Ship Model Conference aboard the Queen Mary. At the conference, Ellen and I had a chance to visit with Bob Comet of the Hampton Roads Ship Model Society and his new bride, Karen, and catch up with all the doings of that group. While in California, I did a little more work on the hull of the Raleigh and started a hull for a model of the Constitution in 1:64 scale. While there, I set up the frames on the keel and planked the wales of the Constitution. On the Raleigh Page there is a picture of the hulls of the Constitution and Raleigh together to show the difference between a "light" and a "heavy" American frigate during that time.

Here's a picture of the Vandalia being rigged on the bench in California with the Raleigh in the background, still on its building board, where it remained for a few more years.

Vandalia and Raleigh in California

In the summer of 2005, we moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we intend to stay forever and where I slowly built my dream wood shop and model shop. But, as life happens, forever was only about six years before we decided to leave Arkansas. While in Fayetteville, Constitution spent the entire time in her box, but I did get Raleigh out and nearly completed the hull.

Here's the ship model workshop in Arkansas.

Fayetteville workbench

In 2010, we moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, intending to live there forever after retirement. And again, I built a woodshop and ship model shop. The woodworking shared the garage with our Prius and I partitioned an area off to build a very nice ship model workshop. While we lived in Santa Fe, I finished the Raleigh, using cotton cordage left from the Vandalia model to rig her and also made a second version of the Anchor Hoy in 1:64 scale, based on a hull plan I had found in the national archives. I had carved boxwood crewmen, and a couple of marines, for the Raleigh, and modeled activities, such as fishing the anchor, unfurling sails, and so forth, as I had gotten more and more interested in using my models to show the processes involved in sailing a ship rather than just making a static model. It was this interest that led me to making the anchor hoy model as more of a diorama, showing her retrieving a lost anchor.

There must be some jinx on building a woodworking/shipmodeling shop, for after about five years, we decided to leave Santa Fe and move back to New Orleans. We attempted to avoid the jinx by renting an apartment instead workshop bench in the spare bedroom, which shared space with a print shop and Ellen's needlework.

In New Orleans, I started out building more PT Boat models, radio controlled, for use on the Bayou St. John near our house. Since the Higgins PT Boats had been built near City Park and the Bayou, I wanted to also model a Higgins boat, as well as ELCOs. I built three 1:32 scale hulls - one for the ELCO 77 foot boat, one for the Higgins 78 foot boat, and one for the ELCO 80 foot boat. These show the differences not only in the shape of the hulls, but also in the propeller shafts, rudders, and exhausts/mufflers. Then, for each hull, I built two interchangable decks: one deck for an "early" version of the class and one for a "late" version.

For the ELCO 77 footer, I built another PT 34 (PT 31 class) for the early version with torpedo tubes and no radar. And I build another PT 59 (or 60 or 61), which was a late 77 foot elco converted to a gun ship by removing torpedo tubes and adding two 40 mm cannons and additional 50 caliber machine guns.

For the Higgins Boats, I modeled an early Higgins with torpedo tubes (different from the ELCO tubes) and a late Higgins, which had roll-off torpedoes instead of torpedo tubes. Removing the torpedo tube allowed the two twin 50 caliber machine gun turrets to be moved back several feet to improve visibility in the cockpit and also improve field of fire. This version also had two 20 mm Oerlikon autocannon, as shown on the original builders' plan, although it most likely would have been upgraded at the time of delivery or in the field to armament including a 40 mm Bofors, a 37 mm cannon, a 20 mm Oerlikon autocannon, rocket launchers and the standard twin 50 caliber Brownings.

For the early 80 foot ELCO hull, I built a deck for the PT 103 class (including the 109) and for the late 80 foot ELCO, I modeled the PT 596, armed with the "max" collection of cannons, rockets, and roll off torpedoes as described above. Later, I sold the late 80 foot ELCO model, updated to represent PT 600, so I ended up making another hull for the remaining 80 foot ELCO deck.

There is more information and plenty of pictures of these models on the PT Boat Page

After building all these 1:32 models and running them around the Bayou, I decided to build a bigger model of a Higgins boat, so I build a 1:16 scale early Higgins PT model and designated her the PT 277. This version has the machine gun turrets more forward than on later versions and torpedo tubes. I chose an early version to model as I wanted to have it launch torpedoes and thought it would be easier to launch a torpedo from a tube than have it roll off. There is more information on that model on the PT Boat Page.

Once I had finished the PT 277 and run her around the Bayou a few times, and lost several torpedoes, I returned to an earlier project started in the 1990s, resurrected the plans, and changed the scale to 1:64 and scratch built a radio controlled model of the "dynamite cruiser", USS Vesuvius (1888). Vesuvius was a purpose bulit ship utilizing pneumatic cannon to silently launch projectiles containing up to 500 pounds of nitroglycerine. The main guns were fixed in the hull so she ended up with all the problems of the much earlier "bomb vessels" which used huged mortars for shore bombardment. Both types of ship required the ship itself to be oriented and reoriented to aim the guns and both types of ship designs were abandoned. Vesuvius more quickly perhaps,as there only one built. She was an interesting design, long and narrow with a round bottom, powered by steam engines driving two large screws. Fast, but not stable enough to be used in open seas.

When the Vesuvius was complete, I exhumed the Constitution hull and used it to build a shipyard diorama, in 1:64 scale. It was a fun project, requiring a lot of research on wood working techniques of the age. The diorama is presented in more detail here. Once the Constitution diorama was completed, I built a diorama using a scratch built hull I had started in about 2013 for a model of the Benjamin W. Latham based on the Model Shipways plans (in 1:64 scale of course) to show a mackerel seiner at work in the early 1900s. Again, there was a lot of research needed into the techniques and equipment of the time. More information here.

Below are a couple of pictures of the ship model work area in our first apartment.

New Orleans workbench

New Orleans workbench

After about five years, we moved in New Orleans to a "retirement community" arriving just in time for the onset of the COVID pandemic in New Orleans during Mardi Gras in early 2020. We had a two bedroom apartment there and set the second bedroom up as our studio space. I lost the garage, but by downsizing, got my machines down to a number that would store in the outside storage closet at our new space. It was at this time that I scrapped my rope machine, alas.

At the new place, I had an additional area to use as a print making studio and soon had re-acquired all the tools and equipment for that. Once quarantine and shut down took hold, I completed the Natchez and three other steam boats, researched and built the Daisy and her whaleboat. It was quite a productive two years, at least from the ship modeling perspective. Printmaking went well, too.

As the pandemic ebbed, we found living in that particular community did not work for us and we moved yet again, to an apartment back in the city. This time we set Ellen up in the large open living area and I got the spare bedroom for my ship modeling and print making.

So far, so good. In our new space, we are trying to figure out what are our next steps as the city of New Orleans continues to succumb to the effects of climate change and environmental exploitation and political and business corruption. Stay tuned. Whatever our future holds, ship modeling will likely be a part of it.

Notes on technique

My sailing ship models are pretty idiosyncratic. I generally frame with maple and plank with red oak. This started because I had a plentiful supply of each from the farm in New Hampshire. Also, it is readily available and inexpensive. I often plank one side of the model and leave the other side partially unplanked and tone side without deck planking, to expose the frames and deck timbers. Until I started to make dioramas, I would leave the models unpainted and did not use exotic wood as is the current fashion. Most all fittings are handmade, and the cordage is made up for each model to scale dimensions. For the Essex, I used linen; for the Vandalia the Raleigh and all subsequent models, I used cotton. In the latter case, I use cable-laid material or rope laid material using Steele's Elements as a guide as to the lay of the line in the original. Shrouds, some stays, and sheets, for example are most often cable-laid. Most of the running rigging is rope laid.

Presently, I continue modeling. Especially in the days of Covid Quarantine! I finished the Natchez and in the 6 months following, built three more steamboats, the "City of Monroe", the "Destrehan", and the "Mount Washington". More information here.

Then, still in lockdown, I began researching whaling and working on a diorama of the rather barbaric processes of American whaling in the 19th and early 20th century. I was inspired to do this in part by reading "Logbook for Grace" and later "A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat", both written by Robert Cushman Murphy. Based on the information in the books together with additional history from other sources, I build two dioramas. The first was a diorama of a whale boat crew harpooning a small sperm whale. The second was of the "Daisy" crew removing the blubber from a sperm whale alongside the ship. The first utilized a Model Shipways kit for a New Bedford whale boat as the main feature, the model adapted to represent a boat from the Daisy. The second was a scratch built model of the Daisy base on plans I drew up myself base on my research. Both are described in more detail on the Whaling Page.

Current (2022) project is a model of the Flying Cloud in 1:64 scale based on plans by Scott Bradner.

Selected Source Materials


This listing is not a complete inventory of my library, but contains those books which often end up on the workbench or near to hand when working on a model. My copies are well worn.

"Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships" is a multi-volume listing of vessels throughout the history of the U. S. Navy, published by the US Government printing office. Paper copies are out of print. The series is now being put on the internet by volunteers and updated, it can be accessed at:

Sailing vessels:

"Steel's Elements of Mastmaking, Sailmaking, and Rigging" From an original publication in 1794. The version I have is a 1983 reprint of the 1932 edition. Published by Edward W. Sweetman Company, Largo , FL, USA. This book is available from used book dealers and varies widely in price. If complete, it contains large folded Plates II – VI in a pocket inside the back cover. This is an essential book if modeling late 18th century British or American vessels. The tables of rigging sizes are widely reproduced in other references, however. This book is also available on line. A facsimile of the original 1794 edition is posted through the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association at their website

Lees, James "The Masting and Rigging of English Ships of War 1625 – 1860" Conway Maritime Press, London, UK 2 nd edition 1984 A wonderful and practical book, especially helpful in understanding changes of (Admiralty) rigging standard practices over time. Since American naval practices tended to follow British Admiralty practices it is also useful for American vessels.

Marquardt, Karl Heinz "Eighteenth-century Rigs and Rigging" Conway Maritime Press, London, UK North American edition by Phoenix Publications, Cedarburg Wisconsin. English translation 1992 Another excellent book documenting different practices over time and in different geographies ( Britain and Europe ). Contains partial reproductions of tables from Steel's Elements.

Goodwin, Peter "The Construction and Fitting of the English Man of War 1650 – 1850" Naval Institute Press, Annapolis , MD , USA 1987 A book that does for the hull what Lees does for the masting and rigging.

Hahn, Harold M. "Ships of the American Revolution and their models" Conway Maritime Press, London, UK 1988 Great detail on several ships and an exposition of the “Hahn method” of building models. An inspiring book.

Davis, Charles "American Sailing Ships Their Plans and History" Dover Publications, Mineola , NY , USA 1984 A paperback reprint of a classic from 1929 which contains a delightful mix of history, opinion, and practical tips from an experienced mariner and modeler.

Davis , Charles "The Ship Model Builders Assistant" Dover Publications, Mineola , NY , USA , 1988 see above

Davis, Charles "The Built-up Ship" Model Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, USA 1989 A wealth of information on the timbering and planking of wooden ships and basic information on building a plank-on-frame model.

Gillmer, Thomas "Old Ironsides" International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press (McGraw Hill) Camden ME/Blacklick, OH, USA 1993 Detail of the construction of the frigate from a naval architect involved in her restoration.

Chapelle, Howard "The History of American Sailing Ships" Norton and Company, New York , NY , USA 1935 re-published by Bonanza Books/Crown Publishers in 1960s

Chapelle was a boat builder-designer and naval historian at the Smithsonian, active in the middle portion of the 20 th century. His books are full of plans and history. All are worth having.

Chapelle, Howard "The History of the American Sailing Navy" Norton and Company, New York , NY , USA 1949 re-published by Bonanza Books/Crown Publishers in 1960s

Chapelle, Howard "The Search for Speed Under Sail 1700 – 1855" Norton and Company, New York , NY , USA 1967

Any of the Anatomy of the Ship series are useful, depending on the model you are building. I have referred often to these:

Takakjian, Portia "The 32-Gun Frigate Essex" Conway Maritime Press, London , UK 1990

McKay, John and Ron Coleman "The 24-Gun Frigate Pandora 1779" Conway Maritime Press, London , UK 1992

Marquardt, Karl Heinz "The 44 Gun Frigate, USS Constitution, 'Old Ironsides'" Conway Maritime Press, London, UK, 1987

Also Excellent for building models of "clipper ships" or merchant vessels:

The two volume set by Underhill. These describe in detail the building of a model by the author of the brigantine "Leon", but include vast amounts of general information about hull construction, masting, and rigging of larger ocean going merchant vessels of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Underhill, Harold A. "Plank-on_Frame Models and Scale Masting and Rigging, Volume 1: Scale Hull Construction" Brown, Son, and Ferguson, Glascow, UK, 1958 (reprint 1981) Underhill, Harold A. "Masting and Rigging the Clipper Ship and Ocean Carrier" Brown and Son and Ferguson, Glascow, UK, 1946 (reprint 1953)

Crothers, William L. "The American Built Clipper Ship, 1850-1856" International Marine division of McGraw-Hill, Camden, ME, USA, 1997

There are many, many other books in my collection or in my browsing and reading history related to specific vessels or classes of vessels. There are interesting monographs about PT Boats, for example, as well as histories of the schooners designed by Thomas McManus, which contain plenty of diagrams, photographs,and other useful information for the model bulider. Similarly, there are a number of books on American whaling that contain many photographs of specific vessels and of the port of New Bedford, MA in the last days of whaling. All such sources, particularly those with photographs and first person accounts are useful to the model builder. They are too numerous to list here, but can be found easily these days through on line research. If interested in how things worked aboard ships, there is information available about that, too. One of the most useful sources about life aboard a warship in the early 1800s is the Patric O'Brian series.

Internet Sources

There are also plenty of internet sources, including the web sites of various ship model building organizations and local or regional ship modeler clubs. In particular, the Nautical Research Guild has a very useful site and is a reliable source. Take advantage of them.


A good plan is the first and most basic requirement for building a ship model. Plans abound. But good plans are sometimes difficult to find. Here are sources I have used and found to be good.

The National Archives of the United States maintains a collection of ship plans in its Cartographic Collection, located in College Park, Maryland. That division of the National Archives maintains a web site with listing of ship plans available. Formerly, it was possible to directly enquire of staff there if there were plans or drawings available of specific vessels and staff would search the archives to find them and make copies for you at only the cost of copying. Once a vessel was thus searched, the collected drawings were then listed as available to others. The drawings were usually builder's drawings at one quarter inch to the foot (1:48) scale. Also, one could visit the collection directly, look through lists of holdings, request the original drawings, review them, and have copies made all at a single visit. I spend a day there and left with plans I used to build the Constitution, the Vandalia, the Vesuvius, as well as many plans and drawings of Civil War era ironclads, which I have not yet built. I suspect this level of service and access to original plans no longer exists. I have visited the Cartographic Collection web site and it appears that many plans and drawings are now digitized and available on line or paper plans can be requested. This is a valuable source of primary source material but may require a great deal of patience to find what you are looking for.

Taubman Plans is also a good source for many, many plans of differing quality and reliability. This service seeks to acquire a wide range of plans and digitize and archive them. They have a web site which lists many of their plans, but not all. Do not hesitate to contact the owner of the service to ask about any plan(s) you might need. They are very helpful and I recommend this service highly.

Coastal Forces Plans by Al Ross, Jr. are also excellent. I used his plans for almost all of the PT Boat models I have built. Al maintains a web site where you can purchase the plans and they are available from some other sources.

Seagull Plans by William Crothers and Thomas Hornsby are excellent. These plans are no longer in print and not readily available. If you ever happen across a Seagull Plan, grab it. This is the same Crothers that is author of the book on American Clipper Ships, above.

The National Maritime Museum (London) at Greenwich, England, has a wealth of plans, including a few of captured American vessels, such as the Raleigh and the Rattlesnake (Comorant). And a useful and fairly user friendly web site.

There are a few internet sites of questionable parentage offering plans for sale. I do not have extensive experience with them, but my limited experience has been truly awful. Avoid them.

Notes on working from plans

They aren't "bulkheads" or frames. They are station lines. The stations are depicted in a standard draft at each station line on the baseline. The station line positions along the baseline are at standardized intervals or distances, which changed over time. These station lines, together with the other lines in the draft, define the shape of the vessel's hull. The table of offsets, correspondingly also the dimensions of the lines and correlates with the other diagrams in a hull plan. While, in smaller craft particularly, frames may coincide with station lines, that is more a matter of coincidence than anything else. In a larger vessel if every frame to be represented with a station line, the drawing would be so full of lines as to be unreadable and unnecessary to define the shape of the hull.

Station lines also have nothing to do with the construction details of the vessel. In modern ship plans, these details are addressed by separate construction drawings, if there are any available.

For older ships, there may not be any plans at all. In the United States, documentation of a ships lines began sporadically in the late 1700's and early 1800s, and a "plan" generally was only a plan for the hull. There were few rigging plans because in a ship yard everybody "knew" how to build and rig a ship and one a ship was delivered to the owner, the new master might change things around anyway. The few early American ships for which there are plans are those captured by the British Navy and surveyed at their ship yard for purposes of awarding prize money. Two well known examples being the colonial frigate Raleigh and the privateer Rattlesnake (HMS Comorant). These plans, and later plans from American sources, are a wealth of information about hull construction, often specifiying basic elements such as "room and space" - the width of the frames and the distance between them, as well as position and rake of masts, location of gun ports, and occasionally, details of ornamental work on the head, quarter galleries, and transom. If you are lucky. In many period vessels, there rarely plans providing much detail, as details were left to be worked out by the master shipwright at the shipyard building the ship.

Like all drafting, naval architectural drafting is a systematic method of representing a three-dimensional object in two dimensions. One theory about the existence of so called "Admiralty Models" of ships is that these models were built as pretty exact miniature replicas of a planned vessel in order to show the bureaucrats who decided on contracts what the ship would look like. Because the bureaucrats were unable to read the plans of the time. This is a reasonable explanation. But there is an alternative opinion that these models were made as presentation pieces (gifts) to the big shots who decided what ship were to be built. This latter explanation seems the more likely to me.

What follows is a simple-minded primer on how to read a plan of ship lines. Here is a first draft of a plan I created for a model of the whale ship "Daisy". The lines were based on a study of similar vessels of the time, written descriptions of the ship, and some photographic evidence. The lines are still conjectural and went through several iterations before a final plan was ready.

There are three separate drawings in a set of lines. The first is the "plan view" a top-down view of the vessel, with multiple "waterlines", which are horizontal sections of the hull shape at prescribed intervals. The second is the "profile view", a side-view of the ship with "buttock lines", which are vertical sections of the hull shape at prescribed intervals. And the third is the "body plan view", a view of the ends of the vessel with "station lines", which are transverse sections of the shape of the hull as prescribed intervals.

All these "plans" include marking specifiying the intervals at which the sections are taken and these intervals are consistent across all the three plans. In the lines plan above, you can see the faint lines that cross from plan to plan. Horizontal lines cross from the profile view to the body plan view and vertical lines cross from the plan vies to the profile view below it. Note also that these vertical lines are the "station" locations and correspond exactly to the station sections shown on the body view. There are also two reference lines: The base line, which in some plans aligns with the bottom of the keel, and the center line. All measurements are taken from the base line and the center line, so that you can look at any two of the line plan views and use meadurements from them to generate the third view. Indeed, only any two of these three views are necessary to generate the three dimensional shape of the hull.

When using a plan of line views to make a ship model you will need to decide what type of model hull you are going to make. There are basically three types: Solid hull, bulkhead hull, and framed hull. Each has variations and some models are really a combination of two or all three of these types. I will discuss only two and will refer you to the bibliography for additional information.

If you want to build a model using bulkheads, stations may be used to define your bulkheads or at least as a starting point. The Station sections on the plan view show the shape and size to the outside of the planking or the hull. But, if you subtract a bit for that planking thickness, you can use station sections directly as bulkheads. Notice that in the plan shown above, the station lines are at consistent intervals throughout. It is not unusual to have "extra" stations in areas of the hull where the shape is changing rapidly, as at bow and stern, and fewer stations in areas where the shape is unchanged for some distance, but the intervals are usually multiples of some basic distance. Stations are traditionally numbered and the numbering system may vary from plan to plan. (See notes below on framing a model.) If your plan has stations that are relatively far apart and you wish to add a bulkhead between, you can easily draw up a new "station" at the desired position from the other two plan views. All you need is a divider and a pencil.

Once you have the bulkheads laid out, you generate a keel with stem and stern post from the profile view. Generally you will want to notch the keel and bulkheads so they fit together securely. And you are ready to go.

If you are building your model using the upside-down method to make planking easier, you will need to modify your line plan by adding a third reference line above the highest point of the hull on any of the views. This line should be parallel to the base line and drawn onto each of the three views. Then, when laying out bulkheads, stem and stern posts, extend them up to this new reference line. Then lay out a building board with a center line and station (bulkhead) lines perpendicular to the center line to set up your keel and bulkheads by gluing them directly to the building board. Here are a couple pictures of a hull being built up that way. In the first, the hull is a PT boat in 1:32 scale built by using the Al Ross plan for PT 34 and making the bulkheads directly from his station sections. The bulkheads are glued to keel and to the plywood deck in this view. The second shows a PT Boat hull in 1:16 scale. In this model, I interpolated two sections between each section shown on the plan to increase the number of bulkheads. I did this because I needed a more rugged hull for this model and also because I needed more space inside the hull so the bulkheads needed to be thinner along the sides, almost like frames. In the second picture you can see the bulkhead extensions to the building board. These are cut away down to the gunwhales after the hull is off the board.

PT 34

PT 277

If you wish to build a model with frames more like the way the vessel was actually built, as with an "Admiralty model", you will have to research the methods of construction at the time the vessel was built and apply that research to determine how the parts were fashioned to build it. The Admiralty had detailed rules for construction, sometimes called "scantlings," which you can look up in resource materials. These scantling rules dictate, based on the overall size of a vessel, the size of framing timbers and frame spacing, ("room and space"), the thickness of planking, and on and on. In the United States, construction practices mostly followed the British lead, just a bit behind, at least for Navy ships. Merchant vessels and ships constructed in regional shipyards differed greatly from Navy practices and each other.

The process of drawing up frames is similar to the way you would draw up bulkheads, just lots more. If you are fortunate enough to have an original plan with a profile view that includes a diagram of the "room and space" as well as the size of the first futtock, you can use that to guide your frame design. If working in a large enough scale you might consider constructing the frames with all the futtocks. I refer you to the bibliography section for sources. The Anatomy of the Ship Series are particularly good sources. Harold Hahn's books also.

The task of translating "lines" to patterns for the actual parts of a vessel is called "lofting," because it was usually done on a wooden floor in a loft at the shipyards. Using the plan lines drawings and the scantling rules you can draw up all the frames of the vessel full-scale use them as full-sized patterns for cutting the frames (or futtocks).

I have made several models in the "plank on frame" traditional method. I started out by setting up frames, stem and stern posts, on the keel and making various jigs and rigs to keep everything square and plumb. I made the USF Essex (1799) and the USF Constitution (1794) that way. Then I made the Frigate Raleigh (1776) using Harold Hahn's upside-down method and have pretty much made all my models that way since. In the last few years I have moved toward a much simplified upside down method and also am using frames cut from plywood as I am no longer leaving part of the hull unplanked. There are photos of some of my later models under construction on the individual pages.

Here are a few pictures of the technique I am using now. I built the Daisy hull this way and the Flying Cloud. These are shots of the Flying Cloud, built from plans by Scott Bradner. You can see the remnants of the paper patterns on some of the frames. I draw them up and use water soluable "school glue" to cement them to the plywood then band saw them out and hand trim to shape. The keel is drawn up from the profile view as above. Once the frames and stern/stem post are secure to the building board, the structure is strong and you can sand and taper the frame bow and stern as needed and fasten the planks with pegs or however you like and not distort the shape. In this case, I planked the hull painted it and coppered the bottom before cutting it off the building board. Then I trimmed the frame extensions down to the gunwhales. In this example, and in the Daisy, I later cut the plywood frames down to the planksheer along the main deck and replaced them with solid wood when fashioning the bulwarks.

Flying Cloud

Flying Cloud

Flying Cloud

Flying Cloud

Flying Cloud

Flying Cloud

I hope this section has been useful. Get in touch if you have questions.

Notes on making "rope", terms and definitions


I came to the process of making my own rope from a background in weaving, macrame, and spinning, so the definitions and many of the terms I use are from that context. They may be inconsistent with how others use the same or similar or different terms, but once you understand the basics of my approach, the process and the results should be very clear.

Spinning is an ancient process which makes a "yarn" by twisting fibres together into something longer and stronger than the fibers themselves. The basic process of spinning involves to elements. First, the spinner imparts a twist to a collection of fibers and then combines that twist with a pulling motion in the long axis of the fibres and the yarn as more fibres are added. A person can make yarn completely by hand without any tools simply by twisting and pulling on fibres, but. very early, humans developed the "drop spindle", a stick with a weight on one end, so the spinner could rotate the spindle to generate twist and use the weight of the spindle hanging on the growing yarn to provide the pull. The spindle also had the advantage of providing a way to store the growing yarn by wrapping it around the stick of the spindle. Some spindles are just the stick and when the yarn gets wrapped around it, the "spindle shape" is created. The spindles with weights can have the weights at the top or at the bottom. Often the weight is incorporated into the design of the spindle as a "whorl" circular shape. Again, as the yarn is spun, it is wrapped around the spindle to store it while spinning continues. The problem is that the length of a given yarn is limited to the amount that can be stowed on the spindle since it is generally not practical to unwrap the spun yarn and leave it attached to the spindle while continuing to spin more. The same problem exists with the "walking wheel", the first mechanized version of a drop spindle and the "flyer wheel", and improved version that let the spinner sit at the wheel and spin it with a treadle. Both these machines stowed the spun yarn on a spindle or a bobbin with limited capacity. It was the later development of the factory system and of large capacity spinning machines that solved the storage problem and permitted spinning yarns of greater and greater length.

examples of drop spindles

When making any form of rope, the rope maker starts with yarn. Yarn is something that is easy to define and hard to precisely describe. For our purposes, yarn means the first result of twisting fibres together into something longer than the fibers themselves. Yarns can themselves also be spun together or "plied" into a larger diameter "strand", and the strands further plied into larger and larger diameters. The yarn is thus the basic unit of spun fibre that can be further combined in multiples to make thicker and thicker material, sometimes a thicker yarn as in knitting yarn, but for our purposes, into ropes and cables. But yarn cannot be un-twisted into anything but fibres.

The twisting process can be done in two directions - right hand twist or clockwise when viewed from the end of the yarn - or left hand twist or counter clockwise. In the case of nautical rope making, I suspect that the yarns used to make ropes for use on ships were very early standardized in terms of the direction of the twist and the diameter of the resultant yarn to be used in rope making.

A look at contemporary "seine twine" is instructive. These twines were made of cotton in the ninteenth and twentieth century before being largely replaced by synthetic fibres beginning in the latter twentieth century, but are still available in cotton.

The size (diameter) of seine twine is given as a number, which is the number of yarns in that particular size of twine. Number 12 seine twine has 12 yarns. Number 72 seine twine has 72 yarns, and so forth. In the pictures below there is a length of number 12 twine that has been un-plied into its three component plies. One of the three plies has been un-twisted into the four yarns each ply contains. Attempting to untwist the yarn will reduce it to the fibres used to make it. All seine twine has three plies and is thus made up of strands each of which has one third of the number of yarns in the finished twine. The yarns if untwisted will yield fibers. The second photo shows the number 12 twine untwisted next to an un-plied length of number 18 seine twine, which has three plies of six yarns each.

number 12 seine twine

number 12 abd 18 seine twines

Here's a photo of number 72 twine similarly untwisted into its yarns. Each strand has 24 yarns. It is important to note that the direction that the plies are twisted together is opposite to the direction that the yarns were twisted together to make the individal strand to ply. In this case, the yarns are twisted together in a "cable lay" direction to make each ply and then three plies are twisted together in a "rope lay" direction to make the final twine. The initial twist of fibres in the yarn itself in this case was "rope laid". There is more discussion of these terms for direction of rotation of the twist just below.

The second picture shows an assortment of seine twines, numbers 12, 18, 24, and 72. Because of the way it is made, with three plies containing equal numbers of yarns, seine twine will always have a designating number that is a multiple of three. Also, as seine twine gets larger and the component plies contain greater numbers of yarn, the individual plies tend to get softer, as the larger numbers of yarns are progressively more difficult to spin tightly. Commercial suppliers sell seine twine up to size 164 although the largest sizes commonly available are 90 and 120.

Cotton seine twine made today is spun from relatively short staple cotton and tends to be softer than twine made in the early 20th century from the longer (2.5 inch) staple Sea Island Cotton, which is no longer available. If I wanted to make a rope for ship modeling that was the equivalent size of larger seine twines (72 and up), I would make it up by spinning and plying in multiple steps so the final product was made up not from many strands of yarns but from a cable made from ropes made from the yarns. The multiple steps will produce a much more tightly spun and better plied rope than one made from large numbers of yarns directly. Something to remember that will be revisited below.

number 72 seine twine

assortment of seine twines

In the weaving world, much attention is paid to the direction in which a yarn has been twisted. That is largely because when fabric is woven, the yarns of the weft lie across the yarns of the warp. When two yarns cross each other, they tend to "nestle" together, with the degree of fit determined by the direction of twist of each yarn. Yarns of the same twist direction to not nestle much when crossing at perpendiculars making a thicker cloth. Yarns of opposite twist nest together better making a more compact cloth. All this matters little if weaving a pattern or using markedly different yarns in warp and weft for other reasons, but weavers still are attentive to the direction of twist in a yarn they wish to use.

Yarns are also described as "S" twist or "Z" twist. The diagram below shows how these terms are used and how to determine which twist a particular yarn (or rope) has. Hold the cord vertically and look at the angled direction of the "lay" of the plies of the cord.

rove vs cable s vs z twist

"S Twist" yarn is also called "left twist" or "counter-clockwise twist" as that is the direction the spindle (or spinning wheel) was turning when the yarn was spun. If you look at the cut end of the yarn, however, it will appear the opposite. Confusing. Similarly, "Z twist" is "right twist" or "clockwise twist" as that was the direction of the spinning wheel, but if you look at a cut end, it will appear to be rotating to the left.

In my rather simplistic approach to rope making for ship models, I refer to "Z twisted" lines as "rope" or "rope-laid", and "S twisted" lines as "cables" or "cable laid". For the most part, with a few important exceptions, on a typical ship of 18th, 19, or 20th century, the standing rigging will be S twisted and the running rigging will be Z twisted. The term "cable" probably refered to a more tightly spun and plied rope regardless of the direction of spin, and the term "hawser was used to refer to a less tightly spun/plied product. When using these latter terms it is necessary to specify the direction of twist, as in "cable - left twist" or "cable - right twist" or "hawser left twist" or hawser right twist". I find that confusing so just the term rope or Z twist versus cable or S twist.

I recognize that this usage of "rope" and "cable" differs from that of others, including recognized authorities, but as I said earlier, my approach is admittedly simplistic and more an approximation than a detailed replication of what may have been the original materials. If one reads the various material available on rope- making, including some primary source material, the terminology is sometimes confusing, and ropes were clearly made up in many different versions depending on their usage. Shrouds, for example, were generally four-ply cable-plied Z-twisted strands twisted around a central core of rope. Descriptions of ropes and cables describe up to nine plies or strands being used to make them.

Also, as above, the term cable is used to mean rope that is more tightly coiled or twisted. The term "hawser" is used in similar sense to refer to a less tightly twisted cordage (rope or cable twist), which is a looser twist than that of "cable".

Hawser also refers to a particular type of line either rope or cable laid that is very thick or heavy and used to moor or tow a ship. In this latter sense, the hawser was intended to be less tightly twisted so it has more "give" or flexibility than a tightly spun line would. When using the term hawser in this sense, it says nothing about the direction of the twist, and one can have rope laid hawsers or cable laid hawsers. In the end, after a lot of research, I concluded that for the purposes of model- building, a simpler approach would be means to preserve perspective and sanity and still give a good looking result. Hence the usage as described above.

With all that said, here is a brief glossary of the terms I use when discussing rope making.

YARN - a spun, twisted length of cordage made from fibrous material. It is the fundamental unit of rope. If unraveled or untwisted, it yields the starting fiber. Yarn may be right, (clockwise), or ("Z") twist or left, (counter-clockwise), or "S" twist. Yarns are twisted together into "strands". The direction of twist when combining yarns needs to be in the opposite direction to the direction of twist in the yarns themselves.

SPUN YARN - term for hand spun threads and thin yarn made aboard ship from remnants of discarded or worn rope or sailcloth. The rope or cloth was unraveled by hand down to its component fibres and then hand spun into yarn. Spun yarn was used for many things aboard a ship, from hand sewing or repairing sailors' clothing to sail-making and repair. It was also used to lash ropes together and to wrap around ropes to prevent chafing. It was also used for caulking seams and cracks in the ship itself. I suspect that the resourceful seamen made and used drop spindles of various types for making spun yarn, something they did in their "idle time".

STRAND - a length of cordage made from multiple yarns twisted together. The "lay" or direction of twist of the strand is opposite that of the yarn. Strands are then plied together to make the final product, rope.

ROPE - a general term for a length of cordage made by twisting together or "plying" multiple strands. The strands are twisted together in the opposite direction to that used to make the strands. Rope as a specific term refers to a final product of cordage that is right-twisted (clockwise) or "Z-twisted". I use the term to refer to any final product of rope-making that is Z twisted. In the general sense the term rope may refer to anything regardless of direction of twist or tightness of twist or ply or number of strands when discussing rope making. I find this general use confusing and so restrict the term rope to mean only the Z twisted final product.

CABLE - in general, any very thick rope and a general term for a tightly twisted or plied rope. In older terminology, cable laid cordage is more tightly twisted than hawser laid cordage and is thus less flexible and less prone to stretching. Cable in the specific sense that I use it refers to a final product of cordage that is left-twisted (counter-clockwise) or S-twisted. Most standing rigging for sailing ship models of the 18th through 20th century will be cable-laid, tightly spun and plied with a final product that is S- twisted (left twist). I use the term cable to mean this S-twisted cordage regardless of the tightness of twist or number of strands. When making cable-laid cordage for standing rigging I do spin and ply it tighter than when making cordage for running rigging, but do not use the term cable to refer to the tighter twisted material or the term hawser to refer to cordage twisted less tightly. It is simpler this way, as the term I use is based on the direction of twist of the final cordage rather than some other characteristic or its intended use.

HAWSER - a general term for a large rope or cable for the purpose of mooring or towing a ship. The term can also mean a less tightly twisted rope or cable than a cable-laid equivalent and in this sense it has no meaning as to the direction of the twist of the final product but implies a less tightly twisted cordage of either left or right handed twist. Some people refer to rigging cordage as either cable laid or hawser laid and specify for each the direction of twist. I use the term cable to refer only to S twisted cordage regardless of size and prefer the term rope to refer only to Z twisted cordage.

ROPE - in general, a term for a length of cordage made up of multiple yarns twisted into strands which are then plied together to make the rope. In this sense, the term does not refer to the direction of twist of the cordage. In the specific sense that I use, rope refers to cordage in which the final product is plied up from strands which are twisted together in right twist (Z twist) to make the rope. The strands will be themselves left twisted and sometimes made from multiple right-twisted yarns, as will be discussed later.

LAY - the direction of twist of a plied length of cordage - rope or cable.

S TWIST, Left twist, counter-clockwise twist - a lay in which the product, when viewed held vertically, has a diagonal groove running from upper left to lower right. The term "left" or "counter-clockwise" refers to the direction of rotation of the spinning wheel or spinde at the time the final plying was done.

Z TWIST, Right twist, clockwise twist - a lay in which the product, when viewed held vertically, has a diagonal groove running from upper right to lower left.

ROPE MACHINE - a device or collection of devices for twisting together multiple yarns into strands and then twisting (plying) strands into larger diameter cordage. The latter two steps can be repeated one or more times to create larger and larger cordage. The resulting product of this twisting and plying is designated in terms that refer to the direction of the lay in the final result as well as to the tightness of the twist in the plying and also to specific purposes for which the cordage is designed.

Cotton rigging materials

There are multiple fibres that can be spun into ropes for use in ship models. I use cotton at present because I prefer using a natural fiber and fine cotton threads and yarns suitable for rope-making are readily available.

I used linen for the rigging on the model of the Essex and was not pleased with the result, as linen is a rugged but brittle fiber, which can fracture when crimped tightly. This is not a good characteristic for a model because, for example, when tying a linen line to an eyebolt the linen may break. Further, lines made from linen loosen (stretch) when dry and tighten when damp or wet. These changes are different than with cotton line and with changing humidity the lines slacken and tighten noticably. This can work the lines where they are tied or pass through a pulley and make it more likely they will break sooner rather than later. So I used cotton threads to make the cordage for Vandalia (and multiple models since) and have been pleased with the results.

When setting about to make the cordage for a model, I first calculate the size of the lines likely found on the original, using Steel's Elements as a guide. Since the size of rope was given as circumferance in old literature, I convert the dimension to calculated diameter and convert that measurement to thousands of an inch. That way I can measure the finished line with a micrometer to be sure the diameter is appropiate and approximates in scale the original.

Steele's charts and tables will also give information at to whether the line is rope or cable and the number and size of blocks used with the line. Once a list of needed sizes of rope and cable is prepared, I can get going on making the cordage.

As an example, below is a listing of the cordage for the model of Vandalia together with notes on how to make up the cordage from available thread and yarns. The latter information is derived simply from experimentation. When I find a new thread or yarn I think might be useful for rope-making, I use the rope machine to spin some it tightly and measure that single strand. then, I use multiple strands of the thread to make up three and four ply versions. If the thread as it comes is rope laid, it will ply up into a cable laid product and vice versa. For larger material, I may first make up a three or four ply rope or cable multiple times and then use those to make up a three or four ply even thicker material. I keep the results of all these experiments on cards with the make up of each one noted on the card. I have a box of cable-laid material in many sizes as a reference to use in planning a model, and a similar collection of rope-laid material, although not in sizes as large. The only confounding issue is that manufacturers may discontinue making a particular yarn or thread from time to time, so I tend to stick to readily available material from major manufacturers. Thus you will find sewing thread from Guttermann and crochet yarn from Coats in my stash. I also have a good supply of fine silk threads, but use them mostly for fine rigging and for tying off or serving smaller line.

Here's the rigging chart. I prepare one for each model and keep the information in a big spread sheet since many times I will use the same sizes of rope and cable in multiple models. And I usually make extra of every size line and keep all the left over line when the model is done.

Vandalia Rigging Dimensions

The Rope Machine

During a visit to the Naval Academy ship model collection in the late 1990s, I had a chance to visit the model shop and spend time with Bob Sumrall, the director at the time. Bob showed me the rope machine they used there. He said they had been experimenting making rope in the shop for a while without much success until he went to a county fair and saw some Amish men demonstrating rope-making. They were using a large electric motor-driven machine. which had one end with multiple spindles that spun the strands and an opposite end with a single spindle that plied the strands into the final rope. Overall it was a rough, rugged process. Bob said the men even used large wooden mallets to pound the rope into shape. He came back from the county fair with a different attitude and approach and in the shop they buit a copy of the machine he had seen.

It was a large contraption driven by fractional horse power electric motors and I shamelessly copied the design for a version of my own. I made up two 4 feet tall rectangular rolling towers of plywood. I had recently taken down an old fashioned bench mounted power shaft and had lots of belts and pulleys and shafts and a motor from that, which I used for the rope machine. The wood was some 3/4 inch plywood about 12 inches by 48 inches left over from a shelving project plus some 2 x 4 scraps and wheels scavanged from a discarded lawn mower. All I had to do was get a few more shafts and cut them to length for the machine's spindles. I drilled and tapped both ends of these shafts and put eyebolts in the ends. The layout of the shafts and pulleys and the drive motors is shown in the first diagram below. The second diagram shows how the two towers were used when making rope. By setting up the machine in my garage, I could make lengths of rope around 20 to 25 feet long.

rope machine

rope machine

The actual rope making process takes place in two steps. First the component cords or "strands" to be made into a "rope" are spun, actually over-spun, while holding the strands under tension. Then, the spun strands are twisted together or "plied" by rotating them in the opposite direction. The excess twist in the over-spun component strands is relieved by the rotation in the other direction and by the relaxation of tension when the over spun strands coil about each other.

The design of the machine supports this two stage process and will be discussed further.

In summary for this first rope machine, there were two towers. One, the "spinning" tower had 4 shafts spaced equidistant apart running through bronze bearings in the plywood sides of the tower with an eyebolt in each end of the shafts. By placing an eyebole on both ends, the direction of rotation could be reversed by simply turning the entire tower around rather than reversing the direction of rotation of the drive motor. In the first step, when spinning the component strands, the spin is in the same direction as the existing spin (or twist or "lay") of the stands. In other words, if you are starting with threads or yarns or strands that are right-twisted, you must apply the spin with the rope machine in the same direction. If the strands are Z twist, they should be spun in the right hand direction. And similarly, if the component strands are S twist, they should be spun left twisted. Whichever direction the spinning is done, the plying must be done in the opposite direction to produce a stable product. So if you are starting with thread that is right hand twist or Z-twist or what I term "rope" and spin three or four of these threads with the machine, those spun threads will have to be plied in the opposite direction and will therefore produce a left handed or S twist result, or what I term "cable" laid rope. More on this later.

In the original rope machine, the "spinning" tower had four shafts as described. Inside the plywood tower, each shaft had a small (one or two inch) pully on it and these four were connected by a fan belt so they rotated together. The lowest shaft had a second much larger pully on it (eight to ten inch diameter), which was driven by a second fan belt connected to a one inch pully on a half horsepower electric motor. This tower was stationary, although in my first version of the machine, I put locking casters on it. I did this to make turning it around easier, but they were not necessary and were soon discarded, as the tower was stationary during the rope-making process and light enough to turn easily without the wheels. The motor was mounted on a hinged wooden platform to tension the lower belt as in the diagram above.

The second tower was the "ply-ing" tower, which had a single shaft with eyebolts on each end with a large pulley on it driven by a small diameter pulley on a second electric motor. The tower with the single shaft had large wheels on it, about 6 inches in diameter, and it rolled easily. A little too easily, I found out. I usually had about 15 to 20 pounds of additional weight in the bottom of the rolling tower to increase the resistance to rolling and increase the tension in the rope during the spinning and plying process. There needs to be some resistance to the tower's movement and I found the proper amount with experience.

Both motors had a hand switch wired into the extension cord into which they were plugged, allowing them to be turned on or off easily and quickly when making the cordage.

To make rope, I separated the two towers twenty or more feet in my garage. The rolling tower moved easily on a smooth concrete floor. I began by tying threads running from each of three or four shafts on the moving tower to the single shaft of the stationary tower. Because the shafts had eyebolts on both ends, I tied the thread to the side that would produce rotation in the same direction as the lay of the tread to be use. In other words, when making rope (or cable) the first step is to produce a hyper twist in the starting cordage. Also, when setting up the machine, I tied the threads to the appropriate end of the moving tower so that when it was turned on, the direction of rotation would be in the opposite direction as the existing twist of the thread and therefore in the plying step, the cords would ply up in the opposite direction to their original direction of twist.

This business can be a bit confusing, but remember that the direction of twist - right or left, clockwise or counter-clockwise - refers to the direction of rotation of the spindle that made the yarn or rope, not to the direction of the twist of the material itself. So, if you are starting with a Z-Twist or right-hand or clockwise twist, when you are looking at the rope machine you want the spinning tower spindle to be rotating clockwise. And for the same starting material, you want the plying tower spindle to be rotating counter-clockwise.

Spinning and plying is done in opposite directions because the spinning causes an over spin or hyper-twist in the strands and they will therefore coil about each other easily in the plying step to reduce the tension introduced by the over-spin. The tension created by the over-spin also caused the mobile tower to move during the spinning process as the spun strands shorten. The tension you apply by restricting the movement of the tower with weights or other means keeps the over-spun strands from coiling up on themselves, which they will do if the tension is relieved before the strands are plied together.

With the threads set up, I turned on the motor in the stationary (spinning) tower and began the process of hyper twisting the cord. While the thread was spinning, if I wanted a waxed cord, I waxed the threads liberally with bees wax, but this was optional. If wanting a heavily waxed cord, I repeated the waxing multiple times during the process, during the spinning, afterward when resting the threads, and sometimes when plying. My personal preference is for un-waxed or only slightly waxed rope, so I rarely use bees was these days.

Spinning will first tighten the twist of the threads or strands and then begin to over-spin or hyper twist them. I spin for a while, then stop and release the tension on the threads a little by either pushing the moving tower ahead a little or by simply pinching one of the strands at two places about a foot apart and moving my hands together to see if the thread coils up on itself. With a little experience you will learn just how much overspin or hypertwist is needed. During this step, the threads will shorten slightly and the rolling tower will move slightly to accommodate the shortening, but you do want to be working with some significant tension on the threads to better "set" the spin and prevent the over-spun strands from coiling up on themselves.

Once the threads are hyper twisted, I pause for a few minutes to rest them and rub the threads with a pinch, sliding along the full length of each thread. This is also a time to apply bees wax or more bees wax if desired.

The final step is the ply-ing step in which the spun threads or strands are twisted together to make a "rope" (or "cable"). As mentioned above, the plying rotation direction is opposite to the spinning rotation direction. I marked the towers on each side with arrows indicating the direction of rotation of the shafts and designated them "R" or "C" to remind myself of the direction of the twist.

In the plying step, the single spindle of the second tower is what applies the rotation. I use a device to keep the spun threads separated as they begin to ply together for two reasons. First, when you first start the rotation of the plying shaft because it is in the opposite direction in which the threads were spun, they may relax briefly before starting to ply together. When they relax, they may sag a bit and get entangled. Remember that you have over-spun them and they "want" to coil up about themselves or with another thread. Second, when you start the plying rotation, the plying will be loose and along the entire length of the threads. I like the lay of the rope I am making to have a pretty steep angle (tighter twist) and find it much easier to use a device to force the plying to begin at one end, the end of the plying tower, and proceed from there along the entire length of the rope in a controlled fashion. The easiest way to do this is use something to keep the threads separated until they enter the actual twist of the growing rope as it plies together.

At first, I used a conical shaped wooden "top" with 3 or four grooves in it, depending on the number of threads in the rope, to keep the threads separate as I turn on the second machine to begin to ply the twisted threads together. The top keeps the plying uniform as it moves along the length of the threads. If the machine is set up properly and the threads are being first twisted and then plied in the proper direction, the component threads will lay up easily during the plying process. Once the plying has gone as far as possible and the machine shut off, I simply cut off the ends at the moving end and then at the stationary end. Again, if the twisting and plying has been done in the proper orientation and to the proper degree, the newly made rope will barely tend to unravel. There may be some over twist from the plying process and the new rope may tend to spring back when you cut if free from one end, so it is best to hold the rope when cutting it free and then let any over spin work out gradually, releasing it a foot at a time. Once I have the rope off the machine, I often hang it over a large (2 inch or greater diameter) pipe and let it rest for a few days so the fibres relax into the new configuration.

Rope versus Cable and how to get there

If you haven't read the section of rope and the definition of terms I use when talking about rope and rope-making, it might be a good idea to revies that section and the definitions here. When making up the cordage for a particular model, I first decide whether the line I need for a particular use is to be "rope laid" (Z-twist) or "cable-laid" (S-twist). The terminology comes from the spinning mill and refers to the direction the slant of the "lay" of the yarn/thread/rope appears when looking at it with the yarn held vertically or horizontally. And the name comes from the slant of the English alphabet letters for which the twist is named. Saying it yet again,wWhen threads of one lay or twist are plied up into a larger cord, the lay of the result is opposite the lay or twist of the starting thread. So if you want what I term a "rope" (Z-Twist) you make it up from "cable"-laid (S-Twist) component yarns or threads or strands. Use rope to make cable and cable to make rope, as described above.

When two or three or four threads or strands or yarns of a given diameter are plied up into a larger cord, the result is not double or triple or quadruple the starting diameter, as the stands tighten up during the spinning process and that reduces their diameter and when they are plied together they nestle up so the resulting diameter is smaller that one might expect. This means that much experimentation is needed. Which is what I did to start out. I first gathered many 100% cotton threads, from machine sewing threads, hand quilting threads, button and carpet threads, through various cotton crochet and embroidery yarns and measured the diameters of these as they came from the manufacturer using a micrometer and making multiple measurements with the yarn relaxed. I then spun them on the rope machine close to the point of hyper twist (when the thread begins to coil up upon itself), let them rest a bit and re-measured the diameter. I could then store these samples on small cardboard rectangles writing notes on the cardboard as to the name and size of the original material and of the spun material. I record the diameters in thousands of an inch and calculate the diameters of cordage needed for a model the same way. This gave me a small reference library of available starting threads or yarns to use.

Once I knew the characteristics of my starting threads the next step was to ply each of them up into a three ply cord. If the thread were "rope" laid, the result was a "cable", and vice versa. Once this was done, I measured the diameter and of the plied cord and stored each on a card with the diameter, the lay, and the source threads recorded on the card.

At this point I could return to my rigging calculation tables made up at the beginning of this process. A sailing ship would have many, many different sizes of cordage, mostly "rope", but some "cable", with the rope used mostly for running riggin and the cable for standing rigging. When deciding what ropes I need to make for a model, I go through the list of the lines of the prototype and their sizes and direction of twist. Most reference material will record the size of each line as its circumference, as was the practice at the time. First, convert the circumference to its diameter then convert the diameter of the original to the scale of the model, and correlate the needed scale diameter to those samples you have made. Sometimes you may need to go back and experiment with additional samples on the rope machine. Remember that you can also make up two, three, or four ply cords if you need to adjust a diameter down or up a bit. It is always necessary to round up and down a bit when deciding how many diameters of cord you need to reduce the number of different sizes of cordage you will need for a model. About ten or 12 different sizes of rope should be sufficient along with the same number of sizes of cable.

Then, it is back to the rope machine to make up the sizes needed. For larger sizes, particularly for the standing rigging, there are a couple of approaches. You can first first make up several smaller strands and then ply them together to make the larger cordage, as described immediately below. There is a simpler approach, which is described below this.

For example, when making up material for a main stay or for shrouds for main or fore mast, you will need a "cable" laid cord of the desired diameter. For the "Flying Cloud" main and fore stays, I needed a cable of 0.085 inch diameter. I made this up by starting with a 10/2 cotton weaving yarn which was S-twist as it came off the cone. I first made up a "rope" of four plies of that yarn - spinning it left twist and plying it right twist. I did this four times and then used the resulting "ropes" (Z twist) to make the final product by spinning (right twist) and plying (left twist) four of them into the final cable-laid result. I did this four times to have extra if needed. Since this was for standing rigging, which would be tarred, I later dyed the cord black using an alcohol based leather dye.

Fortunately, you don't often need to do all that. I work in 1:64 scale most of the time, so the ropes I need are larger than if working at 1:96 scale. But even at this larger scale, it is unusual to need to go to all the work described above as long as you have available larger diameter starting threads or yarns.

In another example, for the shrouds for the fore and main masts on the "Flying Cloud", I needed cable that was 0.055 inch diameter. I made this up starting with "Aunt Lydia's Size 3 Crochet Cotton", which is rope laid (Z-twist, right twist) as it comes. Spinning three strands of this and plying the three together gave me a result that was exactly what I needed. Note that when I spun this cotton yarn, I got a single rope-laid strand with a diameter of 0.027 inch, so when three-plied, this material increased its diameter just about double, not triple. There is no consistent multiplier I have found to accurately predict the increase in diameter when increasing the number of plies, as it varies with the starting material, so this is why you always need to experiment and make up reference samples. And keep them on hand.

Remember also that some of the ropes/cables might be tarred, as the shrouds and stays, so you might need extra of certain sizes that occur un-tarred and tarred. Also it is necessary to make up a few special types of cordage. Shrouds, for example are four-ply, cable-laid. Anchor cable is three ply cable laid, and certain rigging ropes are cable laid (3 ply). And always make extra!

So you can appreciate the process. If you need a three ply "rope laid" rope of a certain diameter, you have to make it up from three "cable-laid" cords of some diameter less than the resultant rope. As described above, you may need to do the plying process a couple of times to get the result you want, but this is uncommon. It sounds like a tremendous amount of work, but once you have the machines set up it is possible to make up the cordage for several models in two or three weekends. On a final note, recall that the length of the resultant cordage, rope or cable, is determined by the distance between the two towers of the rope machine, which is why the old "rope walks" in sailing days were located in the upper storeys of long buildings. And why I set up my machines in a garage where I could get 15 to 25 feet of finished line by putting the towers at the extreme ends of the garage.

If you know the make up of your desired product, how many yarns of what type and size are needed, you can do the process in a single step. In the example above, making the main and fore stays, the desired product is cable laid with a diameter of 0.085 inches and made up of sixteen pieces of the 10-2 cotton yarn, and the starting yarn is cable-laid. To do the same thing as described above in a single step, just tie four lengths of the yarn to each of the four spindles. Then use the "spinning" step to actually ply the three strands on each spindle together. Note that you will do this step by twisting each group of three in the opposite direction to their existing twist. So, in this case, you would run the machine in the right-hand (rope)direction during the "spinning". You are not spinning, however, you are plying, so that is the reason for the using the opposite twisr.Then, once these groups of yarn have been tightly plied, use the machine "plying" step to twist the four groups of four yarns together. This way of making a rope or cable requires a bit more attention to setting up and twisting the yarns, but it is a great time saver. It is analagous to the way a traditional ropewalk makes rope. The key is to know exactly how many yarns are required to yield the desired size final product.

The rope machine described above was in service for nearly 25 years, and traveled with us from Oklahoma to Virgina to California to Arkansas to New Mexico and finally to New Orleans. But I foolishly scrapped it when "downsizing" in 2019. I built a table top version of the machine, powered by 12 volt geared DC motors,the type used in radio-controlled paddle wheelers, and using toothed belts and pulleys of the type used in robotics and certain copy machines. The layout and design of the machine was much the same, but it was designed to use on a table top. I also added a control box that contained the transformer and a series of switches so I didn't have to turn the towers around to change the direction of rotation. And I labeled the controls clearly to keep mistakes at a minimum. I thought it should do the same sort of job as the larger version even though it would not make rope as long as its bigger brother. It was initially limited by the length of our dining room table (seven feet) but in our last move, we got an apartment with a long hallway, about fifty feet. I could set it up the new machine easily on two eight foot folding tables and even separate them for longer length rope, but I had downsized those tables also. So currently we are still working on the seven foot table.

The total cost of this second machine was well under one hundred dollars as the wood used was on-hand scrap. The motors, transformer, switches and wires were less than fifty dollars, and the 1/4 inch brass for shafts, the pulleys, and an assortmet of drive belts less than fifty. (2020 costs)

Following are some pictures of the "new and improved" version of the rope machine along with some commentary and samples of rope made on the device.

These first two photos show the two mini-towers of the table top rope machine. The photo on the left shows the stationary "spinning" head, which has four rotating shafts or spindles and is clamped to the the table. In this picture, three strands have been spun and plied. This is what the rope looks like at the completion of the process. The photo on the right shows the moving mini-tower, the "plying" head. It has a single rotating shaft or spindle and is mounted on casters. The movement of this tower is controlled with a simple weight on a length of twine attached to the back of the tower with the weight hanging over the edge of the table. I use a one pound metal weight but a better arrangement might be a simple can on the end of the twine with weight added as water or pebbles or similar so that the resistance can be adjusted for differing rope making needs. For practical purposes, my one pound weight works well for pretty much everything. Note the oil stains on both towers from frequent oiling of the brass bearings for the rotating spindle shafts. These shafts have holes drilled in each end so their rotation can be reversed by turning the towers around, but in this case, that is not needed because of the set up of the control box as described below.

spinning head

plying head

The following pictures show the inner working of the two towers. As described above, the power is from a geared 12 volt motor designed for RC steamboat paddle wheel models. These motors rotate at 550 RPM. In this device, they have a toothed pulley on the drive shaft and it is connected with a toothed drive belt to another toothe pulley on a rotating shaft. In the plying head, there is a single rotating shaft. In the spinning head, there are four spinning shafts with pulleys connected by a second toothed drive belt so they rotate together at the same speed and same direction. The first two pictures show the spinning head/tower, which is stationary. The third picture is of the plying head/tower, which is movable. The fourth picture shows the control box. The control box contains the power supply/transformer, which converts 120 VAC to 12 VDC. It is wired with two double pole double throw switches to permit changing the direction of rotation of each drive motor rather than reversing rotation by turning the towers around. It also has a single pole off-on switch. This arrangement lets me make rope or cable without turning around the towers. Notice that the controls are labled according to the direction of the rotation desired. In this case, they are labled according to whether I am spinning cable (left twist) yarn into rope (right twist) or vice versa. In the first case, when I set the switch to "C to R", the wiring sets the rotation of the spinning head to left and the plying head to right. The second DPDT switch sends power either to the spinning head or to the plying head when the master off-on switch is turned on. Setting things up this way pretty much eliminated the thought process during the actual rope making. All I have to know is the direction of twist in my starting yarns and set the machine accordingly.

spin head gears

spin head gears

ply head gears

view of double block

Here's a picture of the Paddles used in the plying step as described above. One shot shows the two sizes of paddles I have on hand and the other shows the paddle in use. I notch the paddles for both three and four ply rope and color code the notches for each type. A little bees wax in the notches keeps things running smoothly. The larger paddle is about 4 inches in diameter, the smaller about half that. I rarely use the larger paddle.

the plying guide paddles

paddle in use

These are pictures of what the yarns look like when properly over-spun. The hyper twist will result in the yarn coiling up on itself if tension is released before the yarns are plied. In the first picture, you can see the yarn coiling up on a single strand. I generally test the over spin as described above, by piching a single strand in two spots about a foot apart then moving my hands together enough to release tension to check for coiling. I keep holding the yarn firmly as I check it and then pull out the coiling before releasing my grip. The second picture shows the coiling in all three yarns of a rope being made, something that happens if you release tension by moving the plying tower or if you have insufficient weight/resistance on that tower. When all the yarns coil like this, you need to increase the tension or spin briefly in the opposite direction to eliminate the coiling before resuming spinning or proceeding to ply the yarns.

over spin coiling in single strand

overspin coiling in all yarns

Some final comments on my experiences with this design of rope machine. First, I would say that the little table top machine does a good job. I have made a lot of rope with it, from simple spinning to tighten up threads to use for rigging, to making up larger ropes (cables) for shrouds and stays by making up three and four ply ropes and then spinning and plying them in three or four strands into larger cables. It does a good job.

But I will also say that the larger machine did a much better job. Although it rotated at a much faster speed, with spinning shafts rotation at about 300 - 400 RPM, and it was much heavier, it handled the finest threads without problem, even fine silks and fine cotton sewing threads. And it was especially good at making up really heavy cable stock for large stays. I work mostly at 1:64 scale, so the main stay on a large vessel may be a cable laid cord with diameter of 0.060 to 0.080 inches. That requires starting with a cable laid cord, such as a size 10 crochet cotton, spinning that into a rope laid cord and then taking three or four of the rope laid cords and making up the final cable laid product. That is a lot of trips through the rope machine, and working with lengths of 20 feet is much more efficient than working with lengths of 6 feet.

In addition, the first few inches and the last few inches of any piece of rope are usually not usable. Sometimes it is just a matter of the component strands needing a few rotations to settle into the ply-ing in the final step but mostly is it just the intrinsic wastage of the way the machine is designed in that the spinning shafts are separated by some distance and that distance is wasted because it cannot be incorporated into the final rope. So, if six inches is lost in every piece of rope produced, a twenty foot rope would lose six inches and the equivalent three lengths of six foot rope would lose 18 inches.

But in addition I must say that the larger machine was truly easier and better and more fun to use. To constuct it today and buy all the components would cost several hundreds of dollars versus a cost for the smaller machine which would cost less than one hundred dollars. But, if doing it again, I would spend the extra money. And, of course, have to relocate to a new home with a garage or a very long hallway. Or leave my rope machine in our present hall as some sort of industrial decor.

One final note of caution. If you get into rope-making for your models and if you have, buy, or build your own rope machine, and if you are living with a fiber person as I do, be prepared for your rope machine to be appropriated and put to use making ornamental cord for various projects, especially tassels.

ornamental cord made with rope machine

The samples shown are just a few made up from various embroidery and needle work yarns. They are often very fancy yarns and make up into pretty nice ropes. Perhaps someday a fantasy ship model rigged with these threads.

Notes on blocks and block making

I have been making my own blocks for many years. Largely because I did not like the quality, appearance, and finish of the commercially available blocks. The situation has changed recently and there are now very fine blocks available commercially from one supplier, but I still make my own. On some occasions, I may purchase blocks from a commercial source and use them as basic stock to re-shape them into something I find acceptable.

Anatomy of a Block

Here are photos of a double block I have hanging by my workbench as a reminder of what blocks should look like. This one dates from early in the 20th century and there were likely millions of pulleys like this in assorted sizes and with one to three (or more) sheaves or pulley wheels in them. This particular one was probably never used on a ship but more likely on a farm as I found it in rural New Hampshire. It has two metal pulley wheels on a metal shaft and there are metal bands that run between the five wooden parts that make up the shape of the block. The metal bands extend on one end to make the "eye" that holds the forged iron hook. On the other end, two of the bands extend a couple of inches and hold a metal rod with a metal thimble on it, the attachment point for the rope when the block is part of a tackle. The block itself measures six inches in length, four inches in width, and is about four and one half inches across the face. The pulley wheels are about one inch wide and three and a half inches in diameter. The wooden pieces are of oak, one and one eighth inch thick at the openings for the wheels and about three quarters of an inch thick between the wheels and on the outsides. I figure that this pulley block would have been used with rope up to about three quarters of an inch in diameter or about two to two and a half inches in circumferance.

picture of a double block

view of double block

This particular pulley block is about a century later than most of the models I make, but still makes a good reminder of what a wooden covered pulley block would look like. Prior to the use of internal metal bands for the "strop" of the block, the wood sheathing would have notches at the "corners" to secure the rope used to strop it. "Strop", by the way, is a term for a short length of rope spliced into a circle and refers to the way wooden blocks were originally fastened to ropes or structures on a ship. The circular strop would be cinched together at one or both ends of the block and a second rope passed through the small opening(s) thus formed, often and opening reinforced with a wooden, later metal, thimble, and in time often by way of a hook. When modeling small blocks I do not strop them before fastening them to another line or to a stay or to a yard but tie them with short lengths of fine thread for the attachment as will be shown in the photos later. For larger blocks, I do strop them and usually reinforce the stropping with glue to make the thimble end(s) although rarely I do incorporate a thimble.

Steele's Elements is a good source for illustrations of various blocks of the day and how they were incorporated into rigging. And many other of the books listed in the bibliography have illustrations as well.

Here are photos of how I make blocks. These show the making of a small (3/32 inch) block of boxwood but the process of making larger size blocks as well as double and triple blocks is similar. Although easier for the larger sizes.

I use boxwood and hard maple for block-making and keep a lot of pre-cut lengths of wood cut to sizes needed. The maple is nearly as good as boxwood and has a bit more grain showing and the two woods are enough dis-similar that I generally stick to one type for most or all of the blocks on a particular model.

The steps in the process shown below are:

1. Use a fine file and an emery board to final sand the blank to size and round the end.
2. Use a pinvise with a #70 - #75 drill to make a starting hole on the face of the blank.
3. Drill a pilot hole with a #77 or #78 drill in a hand held power drill.
4. Enlarge the pilot hole with the drill in the pin vise.
5. Turn the blank on the side and use a #11 blade and/or a fine triangular file to notch the upper end of the block.
6. With the blade and the file, cut deep notches in the blank where the bottom end of the block will be.
7. Use the tip of the blade to cut out grooves for the rope extending from the drill hole to the bottom of the block.
8. Cut the block free from the blank and place it on a spare (dull) drill in a pin vise to cut notches on the bottom of the block.
9. With the block on the pin vise drill, tie off the "stropping" and stow for later use.

The final photos show a completed 3/32 inch block and the same block after "stropping" with sewing thread. Last is a photo of various size blocks from my stockpile; 1/16, 3/32, (single and double) 1/8, 5/32, and 1/4 inch sizes corresponding to 4 inch, six inch, eight inch, ten inch and fourteen inch blocks at 1:64 scale.

starter hole

drill pilot hole

enlarge the pilot hole

cut upper notches

notch for lower end of block

cut groove for rope

notch for lower end of block

cut groove for rope

cultting the second notch for strop

finished block

finished block

block tied off

samples of various blocks

I sometimes re-work or re-shape commercial blocks to make their appearance more suitable. When doing this, I usually work with the larger sizes (3/16 or 1/4 inch) in boxwood if available. Here's a photo of a quarter inch boxwood commercial single block reshaped.

reshaped commercial block

reshaped commercial block

I also make my deadeyes. I make them of lignum vitae wood. First, I turn a spindle with multiple grooves alternating a shallow groove with a deeper one in the desired diameter for the deadeye. Then I use a fine saw to cut the deadeyes apart at the deeper grooves, sand the two faces smooth with fine emery paper and drill the three holes in each.

The photo below shows items from the stages in this process. The turned spindle shown is 9/64 inch diameter to make a scale 9 inch deadeye. The photo shows one of the deadeyes cut free and also two larger diameter deadeyes afte sanding. Below are two deadeyes with the three holes drilled.

For practical purposes, this is as small as I go making deadeyes. It is difficult to get the hole drilled in smaller sizes, so if I need any smaller deadeyes, I buy them.

When making deadeyes, one must remember that they are thick. Thicker than you might think. Underhill (Volume 2, page 268) has an excellent discussion of this and points out that the thickness of the deadeye is related to the diameter that the lanyard needs to make the bend without losing strength. In the example shown below, a scale 9 inch deadeye would be 5.5 inches thick, or just over half the diameter. Similarly, a 12 inch deadeye should be 7 inches thick. Something to keep in mind when making or buying deadeyes.

deadeyes process

'Nuf for now. Gotta run.